Some herbs are purported to improve behaviors and reduce some symptoms in people with autism.
The research surrounding these herbs is lacking. Don’t give your child any herbs without first talking to a doctor.
There are some herbal supplements, such as chamomile or garlic, that could have potential benefits. These kinds of natural treatments should never take the place of traditional therapies for autism.
Talk to your child’s doctor about the pros and cons of these natural treatments, and how to incorporate these supplements if they think they could potentially help.
Herbal Treatment & Natural Therapies: Can They Work for Children With Autism?
Autism is a developmental disorder that manifests in differences in:
- Behavior toward others.
- Ability to communicate.
- Cognitive ability.
- Motor functions.
When someone is diagnosed with autism, based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), they are referred to as having autism spectrum disorder. The current understanding of autism is that there is a range of symptoms and abilities, so the condition occurs on a spectrum rather than as a definitive set of symptoms.
Parents whose children are on the autism spectrum want to support their children’s healthy growth and development as much as possible. The leading method for managing autism symptoms is behavior therapy, typically with an applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist. However, nutritional therapy, physical therapy, art therapy, and other complementary treatments can also benefit children with autism.
Some parents may choose to use herbs and supplements to support their child’s health. While there may be some benefits to some of these products, natural treatment should not be the primary or only method of helping your child’s autism symptoms.
Medical Research on Complementary Medicine, Including Herbal Remedies
Herbs and herbal supplements are often touted as methods of supporting the immune system, increasing cognition or learning ability, and removing toxins from the body. For the most part, anecdotal evidence shows that herbs and supplements are effective because people who take them feel better, and parents who give them in safe doses to their children report better behavior.
However, there is very little medical evidence to support supplements as a treatment for any specific condition, including autism.
Popularity of Natural Treatments
A 2015 review of medical literature found that, at the time, there were no studies that focused on how people on the autism spectrum benefited from herbs or natural remedies. Like other unregulated complementary treatments, using natural remedies like herbs, essential oils, or supplements could cause uncomfortable or harmful side effects.
Once that report came out, more medical research was conducted to understand how parents used complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to treat their children with autism. A 2016 survey conducted by German researchers found that CAM is popular as a treatment for children and adolescents.
In 20 studies surveying 9,540 participants, the median prevalence of complementary and alternative medicine treatment was 54%. The most common CAM treatments were specialty diets and dietary supplements, with herbs and natural treatments being less common. The research also indicated that there were more people with autism using CAM to manage their symptoms compared to other psychiatric disorders.
A different German study asked 211 parents whose children were on the autism spectrum to report on if, and how, they used CAM treatments with their children. Among the study participants, 46% said that they already used at least one type of CAM with their children, although the most reported methods were physical interventions like craniosacral therapy. About 18% of the group reported that they would be willing to try CAM to help their child in the future, with physical interventions again being the most common.
Some Potential Benefit
One study focusing on herbal remedies treating autism spectrum disorder symptoms in children reported some positive benefits. However, the study’s authors were clear that the survey size was small, and the range of herbal treatments was large.
The study examined traditional Chinese medicine treatments for autism alongside herbal supplements, and herbal supplements without this additional intervention. Of the 567 participants with autism, many had good outcomes when these remedies were used alongside conventional treatment, like behavior therapy. There were no serious, adverse events reported with herbal medicines.
Some very small-scale studies support the potential of herbs and natural remedies.
- A study on two herbs in traditional Chinese medicine treating 15 children with autism for six months reported that compared to a separate control group of 15 autistic children, the treated group had improved attention, problem-solving flexibility, and ability to plan.
- A study on a Japanese herbal remedy used to treat behavioral symptoms of dementia like restlessness was applied for 12 weeks to 40 participants with Asperger’s. About 90% of the group reported improvements in behavioral symptoms.
- The anti-inflammatory and cognitive-enhancing claims associated with ginkgo biloba were examined in 47 children with autism. No significant statistical difference was found in either the control group taking a placebo or the group taking ginkgo.
Not a Replacement for Traditional Care
These studies highlight the popularity of alternative medicine, either alongside conventional treatment like behavior therapy or instead of this treatment. These surveys can help pediatricians guide parents in making good choices for their children after an autism diagnosis.
Studies repeatedly show that natural treatments are not a replacement for traditional autism therapies. Most research on natural treatments, like supplements and herbs, shows that they could potentially help some symptoms to some degree, but the research is far from conclusive. The scope of the studies that have been done on supplements and herbs is very small in scale, like those described above.
While some natural treatments show some potential, they don’t have the evidence supporting their use that other therapies for autism do, such as applied behavior analysis. While some doctors may recommend adding certain natural treatments to your child’s treatment regime because there is limited potential for harm, and there could be possible benefits, they won’t recommend replacing research-based therapies with these natural remedies.
A focus on behavior therapy with a strong understanding of the risks and side effects of CAM treatments, like herbs and natural remedies, help to keep children safe.
Herbs & Supplements That May Support Improvements in Your Child’s Autism Symptoms
If you are interested in supporting your autistic child’s physical health with herbs and natural remedies as you also pursue conventional treatments, here are some of the most common herbs and supplements that are known to be safe in specific doses:
- Chamomile: Often consumed as a tea, this flower is associated with easing anxiety and promoting sleep. It is also reported to reduce inflammation and promote healing. While there are few medical studies that examine exactly how effective chamomile is, anecdotal evidence supports taking this herb to create a sense of calm.
- Echinacea: This is a common herb taken to manage colds, flus, and other infections by reducing symptoms. It can also promote wound healing. There are several studies that show echinacea can reduce how long cold symptoms last; however, none of these studies were conclusive. Other studies have suggested that the benefits are just a placebo effect, while still others have shown evidence that the herb can boost the immune system.
- Garlic: A favorite of home cooks and chefs everywhere, garlic bestows some great health benefits. It has been associated with lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, and it has some antimicrobial effects. There may be some cancer prevention benefits too. A handful of very small medical studies reported on these benefits, but there is not much direct scientific evidence. Anecdotal reports more often support garlic’s benefits.
- Ginseng: This is both a food and a health supplement, with reports that it can cure nearly anything. However, the herbal effects of ginseng can be so strong that taking it with some medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs like ibuprofen or aspirin) or blood thinners like warfarin, can be dangerous. People who have diabetes should also not take ginseng supplements. Ginseng does have some effect on blood flow, which can improve energy levels in some people.
- St. John’s wort: Many people take this herbal supplement to manage depression symptoms, so people with autism may benefit if they also struggle with co-occurring depression or related anxiety. This herb can increase sensitivity to sunlight. It can also negate the effects of some prescription medications, so do not mix it with prescriptions.
Behavior Therapy Must Be the Primary Choice to Help Children With Autism
While you can provide some physical and mental support to your child with herbs, supplements, and other natural remedies, it is important to keep two things in mind.
First, autism is not curable. It is a lifelong developmental condition, so managing symptoms is the main course of action.
Second, conventional treatments recommended by your child’s pediatrician are evidence-based, so they are known to help children with autism manage behaviors and learn new skills. Replacing conventional treatment with natural remedies is an unhealthy approach and may be detrimental to your child’s health and development.
- Treatment and Intervention Services for Autism Spectrum Disorder. (September 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Herbs and Homeopathic Treatments. (2015). Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT).
- Herbal Medicine Treatment for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review. (2017). Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
- Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorder. (2015). Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
- A Guide to Common Medicinal Herbs. University of Rochester Medical Center.
- Autism. (September 2017). National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).